Morris and Maypole - An Old Lancashire Tradition
What was Morris dancing like in Lancashire of bygone times, say three hundred years ago? It was not the "North West" or "Clog Morris" that we know today. We will never know for certain what the older Lancashire dances were like, but we do have a few clues.
Some useful hints are given in "The great diurnall of Nicholas Blundell of Little Crosby, Lancashire": 16th June 1715 "Mrs Barker, my Wife and I went to Ailes Mellings, we saw the Morris Dansers of Sefton as were going their Round in order to Rear a May-Pole in Sefton..."; 9th July 1715 "The Little Boyes & Girles of this Town diverted themselves with Rearing a May-pole in the West-Lane, they had Morrys dansing & a great many came to it both old and young ..."; and 24th June 1721 "... coming home I overtook the Morris Dansers as were going to Flower the May-Pole in Magull". Blundell did not remark on any significant difference between the Morris dancers of Lancashire and those he had seen previously in Gloucestershire in 1703.
Other Lancashire towns and villages had links between the Morris dance and Maypoles. Alan Crosby, in his history of Penwortham, quotes an early Victorian author: "Half a century ago, May-poles were erected, and garlands woven, early in the spring at Middleforth-Green, and on the edge of the Moss, when ‘merry nights’ were kept, with morris-dances and rustic finery". This Penwortham tradition died out in the 1790s or thereabouts.
Lancashire was not the only county where the Morris dance and Maypoles were connected. Cecil Sharp noted the custom in nineteenth century Ducklington, in Oxfordshire: "Roused at four o’clock.... the villagers assembled at the village-green to assist in raising the Maypole.... Directly the pole was placed in position the Morris men danced round it.... The Maypole remained in position throughout the week [following Whit Sunday], and the Morris men danced round it every morning ‘for luck’ before starting out on their daily rounds."
And so to Abram. Though some of the late 19th and early 20th century Morris teams in Lancashire performed Maypole dances, or appeared at events where others danced around a Maypole, Abram was unique. The Abram Morris Dance was performed around the flower-decorated Maypole that had been an English tradition for centuries. Elsewhere the Maypoles were of the plaited-ribbon Continental European variety which was popularised in England only in the 1890s.
There were other significant differences between the Abram Morris Dancers and other local dancers. Most Lancashire Morris teams performed more frequently than did the Abram dancers, whether in annual local processions or further afield in competitions. The Abram dancers performed at irregular intervals, but at least every 21 years. They did not compete with other teams for cups and medals, but confined themselves to entertaining the people of Abram and surrounding towns and villages. Their contemporaries sometimes devised elaborate dances for such competitions, waving sticks decorated brightly with ribbons and bells, or ‘mollies’ - lengths of plaited cotton tied with coloured ribbons. The latter were probably derived from the handkerchiefs used by Lancashire Morris dancers in earlier centuries, also by those of the South Midlands and by the Abram Morris Dancers to this day. The Abram Morris Dance may appear to have more in common with those dances known as ‘Cotswold Morris’ than with those from nearby Lancashire towns. The reason may be that it is a survival of the type of Morris dance performed round the Maypole, once widespread in Lancashire, which died out in every place apart from Abram.
The reason for the survival of the dance relates to the Morris Dancers’ Ground in Park Lane, Abram. The Wigan Observer of 17th July 1880 reported that the plot of land had been bequeathed to the young men of Abram for the purpose of celebrating the ancient festival of Abram called the Morris Dance, provided it was celebrated at least every 21 years. This festival, described as ‘ancient’ in 1880, may date from the 18th century. By the 1840s the Morris Dancers’ Ground had become one of Abram’s few landmarks: it was included on the Ordnance Survey map of 1846, together with the nearby Maypole House Farm, believed to take its name from the dancers’ Maypole. It is unlikely that it would have been recorded by OS if it was a new feature when surveyed: it had probably been in use for generations.
Use of the Ground for the ‘ancient festival’ ended in the summer of 1901, the last year that the traditional dancers did their rounds. The dance should have been performed in 1922, but was not. Abram UDC stepped in to preserve the site, marking it out with posts. Over the years these disappeared and the site became derelict. In 1968, William Wright, son-in-law of one of the 1901 dancers, applied for ‘village green’ status for the site; this became official in 1972. Mr. Wright’s sister-in-law was also a member of ‘Abram Morris Dancers’, a team of girls who, from the First World War through the 1920s, performed Morris dances with decorated sticks rather than the old Abram dance with handkerchiefs, and had a Continental-style Maypole on Park Lane. This family connection obviously meant a lot to Mr. Wright, who also secured ‘common land’ status for the site in 1976 as further protection from development.
In 1984, the Abram Morris Dance was performed at its traditional venue for the first time since 1901, and has continued to be danced there annually. However, the site becomes less suitable every year as it suffers damage from scramble motorcycles, which cause rutted surfaces and drainage problems. Abram Morris Dancers decided that a restoration scheme was necessary, in particular to celebrate the centenary in 2001 of the last performance by the traditional dancers. Working with the community, they are in partnership with Groundwork Wigan to implement a scheme that will give Abram a village green to be proud of and a new Maypole. Wigan Council and the Abram councillors have been most helpful, providing support, advice and, it is to be hoped, funding. The Shell Better Britain Campaign has provided a grant of £1,500 towards a total scheme cost of up to £20,000. Other grants and business sponsorship should provide the balance of the funds required. Wigan Council have also designed new boundary signs for Abram, which feature a traditional Maypole garland, similar to that used by the Morris dancers.
On Saturday 30th June and Sunday 1st July, Abram Morris Dancers will dance at the Morris Dancers’ Ground and then go about their rounds of Abram, Bickershaw, Hindley and Platt Bridge. Why not join them and judge for yourself whether this is an ‘ancient’ festival dating back centuries?
Michael L. Jackson, whose views do not necessarily represent those of Abram Morris Dancers.
This article was published in 'Folk Buzz!' magazine during 2001.